Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘belief’

Room in the Tomb, Room for Doubt

John 20:19-29

empty-easter-basket-green-grass-white-13295986The tomb is still empty. Really, it is.
The peeps have been eaten [or at least mostly eaten], the baskets emptied of their sugary substances and plastic grass, and the Easter egg hunts are a distant memory. It’s the week after, and the tomb is still empty.

candyComaIn Luke’s Gospel story, a group of women discovered an empty tomb and no body, and two guys in shiny, white clothes [apparently part of some Elvis impersonator caravan]. And they were happy, because they were told that Jesus was no longer dead in the tomb. So they rushed to their friends the disciples, and told them, and were met with sarcasm and rebuttal. They were called foolish. Only one of the men, Peter, decided to make his way to the tomb, and of course, when he did, it was empty.
Now we shift to John’s story, so put on your seatbelts. We’re not in Luke-Kansas anymore!

John sets the stage for us and says that it’s evening, and all the doors of the disciples’ house are locked. They were afraid, not of the Jews in general [because that would include most of them], but afraid of the religious and political authorities who they felt were out there looking for any followers of this Jesus of Nazareth who had died. Add to that the fact that the body of Jesus had gone missing, and well, the disciples didn’t want anything to do with that. They were keeping their heads down.

But, in the all-of-a-sudden, freaky-John style, Jesus appears out of nowhere. He says: Shalom, peace be with you, and then shows them his hands and his side. The disciples are happy about this whole seeing Jesus again thing. This was pretty cool. After all, to this point, they had done nothing but deny, run away, and betray. And then they locked themselves inside their house after the women disciples told them that the body was missing. And now. Jesus was here! Great.

Like a broken record, Jesus says Shalom again. And: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
Then Jesus breathes on them [though I don’t imagine some weird, awkward breathing like when you eat garlicy food and want your friend to smell your breath].

bad-breath4

I imagine a more symbolic sort of breath like in Genesis’ creation story. A breath that gives life or purpose. Perhaps a breath to help them remember? The women already did remember the things that Jesus said and did. But these disciples, because they were afraid, had forgotten.  Well, here comes the answer to our question about the whole breathing thing, because John’s author tells us that Jesus then said:

Receive the Holy Spirit. And forgive.
In that breath is God’s Spirit and that Spirit is one of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Anyone at this point wondering if this whole forgiveness part was needed by these particular disciples? I mean, really, their track record wasn’t all that great. I wonder if that statement about forgiving others was also about forgiving themselves. Either way, we’re not given much time to think about it, because the most interesting disciple outside of Mary Magdalene [in my opinion], takes center stage.

Thomas!

thomastrain

And not the train!
Thomas, the doubter! Yes! Welcome back! How we missed you…

First, he’s called Thomas the twin, and here’s what I will say about that. He has no named twin so, you and I could very likely be his twin. That’s literary device at its best. We are meant to be with Thomas here.
He didn’t see Jesus appear, He didn’t hear the double shalom, he didn’t see the hands and side. He didn’t get breathed on or told to forgive. He was out.
Was Thomas less afraid than the others?
Or was he just unlucky?
We don’t know. But we do know that Thomas was not buying this whole “we’ve seen the Lord” thing. Yeah right. These fearful, cowering men had seen Jesus? Prove it.

The story flips forward about a week later.

Well, this time Thomas is there with the others and Jesus appears again. Peace be with you again, but then Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, telling him to touch his hands and side—not just to see them. But Thomas doesn’t touch anything. After only seeing, he makes a proclamation: My Lord and my God! It’s a statement of allegiance, because this same phrase was said to Caesar by his loyal Roman subjects at that time.

And then Jesus says: Have you [trusted] because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to [faith].

I changed belief in both cases to trusted and faith due to a confusing translation from Koine Greek to English. I’ve mentioned this before, but often in our English Bibles, the word belief appears, and in my opinion, it is a lazy/Western biased translation that does not take into account the many possible meanings and nuances of the original word.

Belief is absolute certainty in something that you know to be true and is not at all tied to spirituality or religious practice—at least it wasn’t until much, much later in history. Trust and faith, however, are two words that appear often in the New Testament and carry with them much larger meanings than just believing that something is true.

I’ve come across so many people who assume that because I am a Christian, I believe this or that or the other thing, or what that thing says on TV or what that person says, and with complete certainty. Of course, when I tell them that I don’t believe in more than half of the stuff they said do, they are confused.

Why?
Because many people, including Christians, assume that faith is belief.
As I’ve mentioned before, the word faith in John’s Gospel is a verb, not a noun.
Faith is not just an idea in your head about a certain thing [whether it’s true or false]. Faith is more like an orientation of your whole self. If someone “faiths” something, she puts her whole self into it—mind, body, and spirit. Faith includes trust.
So as we’re standing in the empty tomb, left to wonder what happened, or if we find ourselves in Thomas’ shoes, doubting the whole thing, is that so bad?

No, of course not. Doubt is goooooood……

Have you ever thought [or said]:

I’m going through a time in which I don’t think God exists.

Do you feel guilty or strange about it? Well don’t! Embrace that thought.

In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Faith, he says that his doubts keep him moving and that doubt can be a doorway to spiritual and personal growth. In terms of his own personal thoughts about God, McLaren has “sifted and re-sifted, and some beliefs [he’s] had to release, while others have proven themselves as ‘keepers.’”[1]

I don’t think doubt is really the problem. I think an unwillingness to question belief is a problem, because consider: isn’t holding onto a belief out of a sense of false security a very dangerous concept? I would say, look around the world, and the answer is a big, fat, YES.

Because if we’re convinced that doubt is “bad” and not something so common, we don’t allow for the possibility of mistakes or misjudgments. Instead, our so-certain belief system becomes a rigid, intolerant and self-righteous existence.

Freedom to doubt, however, helps us to deepen, clarify, and even explain certain aspects of our spirituality and of our day to day lives.

So friends, there is room for your doubt and plenty of it. Embrace it and allow it to challenge certain belief systems and perspectives that may be doing you harm. From experience, I can tell you that if you do that honestly and at your own speed, like Thomas you will encounter healing, reconciliation, and a rejuvenated enthusiasm for more exploration.

Thanks, Thomas.

We all needed that.

[1] Brian McLaren “Doubt: The Tides of Faith”

 

Love at the Core of Being

Psalm 85:1-8; 10

I want to begin with a question.

How many of you feel that your definition of who God is comes mostly from:

What your parents or family raised you to believe?

Or:

From the Bible?

Or:

From a church?

Or:

From a spiritual or enlightening experience?

Or:

From personal life experience?

homerThinking

Perhaps some of you answered this question strongly with one of those options. Or, maybe there are a couple of those options that resonate with you.

Regardless, most likely you identified strongly with these options:

-Parents or family beliefs
-Church beliefs
-Personal life experience

Yes, it’s true. Most of us [and I mean almost ALL of us] do not define who G-d is based on the Bible or some spiritual experience of enlightenment.

say-whatIn my vocation I encounter a lot of people who want to talk about religion or spirituality or G-d, and many of these conversations start with assumptions about belief itself. For example, many assume that the Christian G-d is a certain way. If that person is not a Christian, he/she has learned something from the TV or other media or most likely, they’ve just heard it as second or third-hand information from family or friends or acquaintances. If he/she does not have much contact with people who identify as Christians, the assumptions begin to grow into perceptions and eventually, they get solidified. He/She ends up saying and thinking:

All Christians believe this or that. They all think G-d is like this or that…

Of course, today this is happening much more to Muslims than to Christians. Islamophobes really do exist. They group all Muslims together, as if every single Muslim in the world believes the same things and practices their faith in the same way. They assume that all Muslims say and think the same things about Allah and life in general, and so the beliefs and actions of so-called terrorists like ISIS are no different than say, the Muslim family down the street or the guy at work who pauses to pray from time to time, or the female doctor who wears a hijab. Even though terrorist groups are not considered Muslims by practicing Muslims, it doesn’t matter to Islamophobes. They’ve made up their minds already. This kind of thing also happens to Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, etc., but we know that in this country Islamophobia is most prevalent.

closing2So because I have Muslim friends and colleagues and work frequently with Muslim communities, people come to talk to me.

I do my best to fact-check their statements and to clarify that there is not just one way of looking at things and that every Muslim is unique just like every Christian is unique.

Then the conversation usually shifts to me.

But aren’t you a Christian? So don’t you then believe that there is only one G-d, and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Aren’t you supposed to believe that?

My response reiterates:

Just like Muslims, not all Christians believe the same things or practice their faith in the same way.

But then they scratch their heads and act confused. And for some, that’s the end of the conversation. For some, I cease to be a Christian in their minds.

What we’re talking about here is theology, or simply how we think about G-d.

I asked you the question at the very beginning about how you think you come to beliefs about G-d. I’ll tell you why this matters.

Religious prejudice and discrimination, Islamophobia, harmful rhetoric, propaganda, fanaticism, and even violence occur because of theology.

For example, if you think that G-d does not exist or if you think that there’s no way to be sure that there is a god, then that affects the way you look at the world. You’ll most likely be skeptical about all religions. You’ll certainly balk at any religious folk who try to convert others. But you may also be very accepting of all religious and non-religious people, because again—you are not sure that there is a god in the first place. And finally, you won’t feel the urge to attend a church, temple, mosque or whatever, because prayer and worship don’t make sense if there is no object for prayer and worship.

Likewise, let’s say you aren’t atheist or agnostic, or a secular humanist. Say you do believe in G-d, and that’s been part of your perspective since you can remember. That clearly affects the way you see the world and other people. Perhaps you see G-d as a creator of all living things. Maybe G-d is a cosmic judge, too. And if you believe in this kind of G-d, most likely you spend a reasonable amount of time in worship services, prayer, or Bible reading. You do that, because you believe G-d is watching, and also because G-d deserves your time and attention.

Take it a step further.

Say you do believe in G-d, but you were abused in the past—either physically, verbally, or religiously. Or a combination of all three. You see G-d much differently. You may see G-d as a divine rewarder and punisher. You may see G-d as completely distant and unfeeling, because how could G-d allow the abuse to happen? Or, if people used religion to control and manipulate you, perhaps you see G-d as someone or something that as power over you; and you are afraid of this G-d.

I’m sad to say that I know too many people who think in this way because of abuse.

Back to the original question. Almost all of us are conditioned to believe something about G-d by other people. And then some of us, via personal experience, come up with our own conclusions.

But very, very few people actually believe something about G-d based on Scripture itself or some spiritual enlightenment.

Someone can read the Bible many, many times and then say that he/she believes in the G-d of the Bible. But which parts of the Bible do you mean?
The Bible is chock full of theologies that don’t agree with each other at all.

The majority of what we call the Bible is Jewish, to be sure, but also many, many other Semitic theologies and ancient Hebrew thoughts—including Egyptian.

The smaller part of the Bible, the New Testament, is Jewish and Roman and Greek and Aramaic and African Sub-Saharan and more, in its perspective.

Yes, it’s true that one theology does not fit all—even in the Bible.

What anyone believes or doesn’t believe about G-d is a result of a series of influences, experiences, texts, words, songs, and feelings. No one person can claim that he/she “knows” who G-d is or isn’t. Theology has always been relative to the culture and time period in which it was created. This is why the theology of the 1st and 2nd century in Israel and Palestine looks so much different than the theology of 2015 in Philadelphia. It’s just normal for this to happen.

The Psalms of the OT are a great example. They are completely human expressions of what people feel and think about G-d.

Consider Psalm 85, for example. It’s nationalistic. It’s about Israel. It’s written by someone who is in the midst of troubling times. There’s war. Notice that the writer expresses perspectives about G-d formed because of personal experiences. For this writer, G-d is a celestial being who protects a certain nation. This G-d gives fortune to certain families. This G-d forgives them when they make mistakes. This G-d is also capable of getting mad. Eventually, the tone of the Psalm shifts to a challenge.

Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?

This person believes that G-d is angry with him and his nation. And yet, the writer coerces G-d as well. It’s as if the psalmist is subtly reminding G-d how G-d should act. Aren’t you loving, G-d? Don’t you care about us? You did before, so….

And then the writer even goes a step further, saying what G-d will actually do and say:

God will speak peace to the people, to the faithful, to those who turn to God in their hearts.

And, a desired result for himself and his nation:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

There’s a reason, in my opinion, why certain Psalms are not appropriate for us to read in worship services. They reflect a certain worldview and time period and sometimes they are looking for revenge, or war, or punishment.

And now, I will say something that for some might be going too far, and that’s okay.

Sermons are Wizard of Oz speeches, because always when you listen or read them, you should use your brains, your hearts, and your courage.

wizard-of-ozFriends, we create theology. There is no “right” or “true” or “orthodox” theology.
We create for ourselves what we would like G-d to be or how G-d should act.

We ourselves connect experiences in life to things we read in the Bible and other sacred books; we listen to what people teach us and say about G-d and we make choices about what we actually think.

I am fortunate. My parents did not force a certain theology on me. G-d was never a punisher or a cosmic judge. I was conditioned to see G-d as love. I saw that love in my parents. But many people I know were not so lucky. They were raised to fear G-d. Some were taught that G-d rewarded certain moral behaviors and punished others. Others were raised in a church that excluded lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender folk; or people of other cultural backgrounds; or people who didn’t believe in things like the trinity. And as I mentioned before, some were abused.

What I hope you take from this is some encouragement. For those of you who have been raised in an abusive environment, know that what you were conditioned to believe is not true and certainly not based on any Scripture or enlightened spirituality. It’s fear-based theology created to push you down or keep you down. Over time, you can be free of it.

If you were raised to think that G-d is jealous and craves human devotion, rewarding it with heaven, then your life may be focused on what you have to do or believe in order to go somewhere nice when you die. But that limiting theology can keep you from discovering that your day to day life on this earth is the most important and treasured thing. G-d isn’t dividing people between some place called and heaven and some place we call hell. Courageously use your heart and mind to consider that G-d is concerned with your personal well-being and also present when you’re hurting or suffering.

And if you were raised to think that Jesus was and is THE ONLY savior of humankind, and your ticket to heaven, then probably it’s hard for you to interact with others who are not Christians and most likely you struggle with accepting those who follow another spiritual or religious path, or none at all. But what if Jesus is bigger than that perspective?

Courageously using your brains and your hearts, consider that Jesus of Nazareth existed and taught and lived because of love. Consider the possibility that G-d didn’t send one person to be a martyr, to die on a cross for people’s sins like a sacrificial lamb. Consider that Jesus came, as he was known to say, to seek out the lost and marginalized. Consider that Jesus challenged religion itself, and the status quo, and instigated a new type of community that considered everyone to be neighbor and family.

For those of you like me who were fortunate enough to be raised in an environment of questioning and openness, we have a responsibility. We cannot promote one view over another or lord over anyone with our theology. And we must reach out to those who have been abused, and help them to heal, and to move with them from fear into love.

For indeed, what is at the core of G-d’s being and our being. Are we not essentially love?

Regardless of what you believe [or don’t believe], may your perspectives and beliefs be rooted in the honesty that they are part conditioning and part experience. And may you always fact-check your beliefs by returning to love. Does what you think and believe come out of a place of love?

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